The word ketchup came from Min Nan?

I was very curious about the Chinese words mentioned in the article “The Cosmopolitan Condiment: An exploration of ketchup’s Chinese origins.” on It is a very thorough article about origin and evolution of ketchup. The condiment started out as a fish sauce in China and made its way to Southeast Asia. European traders in Asia became accustomed to the taste and found a way to make it themselves. Slowly the fish disappeared and was replaced by mushroom and tomatoes into the current form of ketchup. The paragraph that caught my eye was:

The story begins more than 500 years ago, when this province on the South China Sea was the bustling center of seafaring China. Fujianese-built ships sailed as far as Persia and Madagascar and took Chinese seamen and settlers to ports throughout Southeast Asia. Down along the Mekong River, Khmer and Vietnamese fishermen introduced them to their fish sauce, a pungent liquid with a beautiful caramel color that they made (and still make) out of salted and fermented anchovies. This fish sauce is now called nuoc mam in Vietnamese or nam pla in Thai, but the Chinese seamen called it ke-tchup, “preserved-fish sauce” in Hokkien — the language of southern Fujian and Taiwan. (Of course, Hokkien isn’t written with the Roman alphabet; ke-tchup is one of several old-fashioned Westernized transcriptions, like catsup and katchup. The word has died out of modern Hokkien, but the syllable tchup — pronounced zhi in Mandarin — still means “sauce” in many Chinese dialects.)

When I saw the transliteration of Min Nan and Mandarin, I had to try to figure out the corresponding characters. The character described corresponding to “sauce” is 汁. However, sauce is not the best translation. It is more like juice. 果汁 means fruit juice. In the case of the fish sauce, it’s exactly as described: the juice or liquid that flows out of the fish. 汁 can also mean the liquid that comes from cooking something, such as fish, but not the actual item cooked. In this respect it is not equivalent to “sauce” in “apple sauce,” which contains apples. I’m not sure what “preserved-fish” corresponds to, but fish is 魚.

Then comes the Taiwanese Min Nan pronunciations. I refer to the dialect called Hokkien as Min Nan. The way to say 魚 in Tiawanese sounds like “he” with an even tone, depending on the word after it. 汁 in Taiwanese sounds like “jiap.” So in modern Taiwanese, 魚汁 (corresponding to fish sauce) would sound like “he-jiap.” I guess it does sound a little like ketchup!


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